Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Revisiting the Pontifical Biblical Commission (part 1)

In 1902, Pope Leo XIII established the Pontifical Biblical Commission to address the growing trend of historical-critical approaches in scripture scholarship then on the ascendancy thoughout the Church. In the establishment of this Commission, which Leo instituted to be an official teaching organ of the Church, the Holy Father said that the goal of the Commission was "that Catholics should not admit the malignant principle of granting more than is due to the opinion of heterodox writers, and of thinking that the true understanding of the Scriptures should be sought first of all in the researches which the erudition of unbelievers has arrived at" (Enchiridion Biblicum, 141).

The PBC functioned in this capacity until the spirit of modernism caught up with the hierarchy in the late 1960's, and many scholars (mainly of the historical-critical school) petitioned the Vatican to reform the Commission. Finally, in 1971 Paul VI restructured the Commission and dethroned it from its place as an official teaching organ of the Church. From that time on, it has been staffed largely by historical-critical scholars a commission of scholars who, "in their scientific and ecclesial responsibility as believing exegetes, take positions on important problems of scriptural interpretation and know that for this task they enjoy the confidence of the teaching office" (Cardinal Ratzinger, Preface to the PBC document, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church).

Nevertheless, though the PBC only now "takes positions," it once was invested with the highest authority. In 1907, Pope St. Pius X in his motu proprio Praestantia Scripturae gave the PBC this authority, in which he expressly states his desire to use the PBC as a bulwark to thwart the modernist school and to support the declarations of Lamentabili Sane and Pascendi Dominici Gregis. Of the authority granted to the PBC, the Pope said:

We do declare and decree that all are bound in conscience to submit to the decisions of the Biblical Commission relating to doctrine, which have been given in the past and which shall be given in the future, in the same way as to the decrees of the Roman congregations approved by the Pontiff; nor can all those escape the note of disobedience or temerity, and consequently of grave sin, who in speech or writing contradict such decisions, and this besides the scandal they give and the other reasons for which they may be responsible before God for other temerities and errors which generally go with such contradictions.

and this we declare and decree that should anybody, which may God forbid, be so rash as to defend any one of the propositions, opinions or teachings condemned in these documents he falls, ipso facto, under the censure contained under the chapter "Docentes" of the constitution "Apostolicae Sedis," which is the first among the excommunications latae sententiae, simply reserved to the Roman Pontiff. This excommunication is to be understood as salvis poenis, which may be incurred by those who have violated in any way the said documents, as propagators and defenders of heresies, when their propositions, opinions and teachings are heretical, as has happened more than once in the case of the adversaries of both these documents, especially when they advocate the errors of the modernists that is, the synthesis of all heresies.

Therefore, though the PBC has no real authority today, all Catholics are bound to submit their intellects to the earlier decisions reached by this Commission, especially since Pius X specifically says that not just scholars, but "anybody" whp defends a proposition condemned by the PBC is subject to latae sententiae excommunication.

The PBC issued many replies to certain dubia submitted to it throughout the course of its life, the most well-known being the replies on the historicity of Genesis and portions of the Old Testament issued bteween 1906 and 1908 (though from 1911 onward it had much to say on the historicity of the New Testament, as well).

Let's take a look at one of the many replies of the PBC, from June 29th, 1908, regarding the character and author of the Book of Isaiah. This particular reply is divided up into five parts, each corresponding to a different question put to the Commission regarding certain aspects of the Book of Isaiah: the first two questions are concerned with the nature of Old Testament prophecy as such, and the latter three deal with the authorship of the book.

Regarding prophecy, it is one hallmark of modernist biblical interpretation that no prophecy is acknowledged to be truly supernatural in character: if Daniel predicts something that did in fact happen in the future, the only "rational" explanation is that Daniel must have been written after the fact to give the appearance of prophecy. This anti-supernaturalism is usually taken for granted and not explicitly stated. In Reply I, the PBC condemns the following proposition:

"That the predicitions read in the Book of Isaiah-and throughout the Scriptures-are not predictions properly so called, but either narrations put together after the event, or, if anything has to be acknowledged as foretold before the event, that the prophet foretold it not in accordance with a supernatural revelation of God who foreknows future events, but by conjectures formed...and shrewdly by natural sharpness of mind..."

Reply II upholds the eschatological and Messianic interpretation of the Old Testament prophecies against an over-exuberant preterism (the belief that prophecies were fulfilled not long after they were made and were always for the prophet's own time only and have no future fufilment). The following proposition in condemned:

"Isaiah and the other prophets did not put forth predicitions except about events that were to happen in the immediate future or after no long space of time..."

The remaining three replies all deal with the argument that Isaiah had multiple authors. This is a very common assumption nowadays, one even made by otherwise conservative and orthodox persons (although some still cast doubt on the multiple-authorship theory, as does Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J., in his book Inside the Bible, where the multiple-authorship theory is mentioned but not endorsed). The main argument for the multiple authorship of Isaiah comes from the fact that chapters 40-66 seem to speak to post-Exilic Jews. Taking the presupposition that Isaiah could not have known or written about events two centuries in the future, it is presumed that another author wrote chapters 40-66. As evidence for this, modernists will point out that had Isaiah actually prophesied about these events so far in advance, his contemporaries would not have known what he was talking about!

Reply III condemns the idea that a prophet must be understood by his contemporaries. Reply IV condemns the idea that a philological or textual critique of Isaiah turns up any evidence of mutliple authorship. Reply V deals with the possibility that many of these arguments taken altogether could cast doubt on the single-authorship and lead us to believe that the book was attributed "not to Isaiah alone, but to two or even several authors." Like the previous assertions, this one is condemned as well. While the idea of multiple authorship itself is not condemned, the Replies condemnt the notion that there is any textual evidence of multiple-authorship. Thus, the PBC is saying, "If you believe in mutiple-authorship, know that there is no good reason to do so."

Next time we'll look at what the PBC had to say about the Psalms.


Anonymous said...

It was somewhat troubling to me that even our Holy Father made mention of "duetero-Isaiah" in his book Jesus of Nazareth.

Anonymous said...

A must-read text on this topic is the Reflection by Card. Joseph Ratzinger on the 100th anniversary of the Pontifical Biblical Commission - "Relationship between Magisterium and exegetes" (May 10, 2003)


[start of quote]

So did the dream come true? Have the second 50 years of the Biblical Commission cancelled and overridden what the first 50 years produced?

I would respond to the first question that the dream has become a reality and that it has also been corrected at the same time.


We come thus to the second and conclusive question: how should we evaluate, today, the first 50 years of the Biblical Commission? Was everything only a tragic conditioning, so to speak, of theological freedom, a collection of errors from which we had to free ourselves in the second 50 years of the Commission, or should we not consider this difficult process more articulately?
The fact that things are not as simple as they seemed in the first enthusiasm of the beginning of the Council, emerges perhaps already from what we have just said. It is true that, with the above-mentioned decisions, the Magisterium overly enlarged the area of certainties that the faith can guarantee; it is also true that with this, the credibility of the Magisterium was diminished and the space necessary for research and exegetical questions was excessively restricted.


The laborious research to be undertaken can be compared, in a certain sense, to the effort required by the Galileo case. Until that moment it seemed that the geocentric vision of the world was connected in an inextricable way to what was revealed by the Bible; it seemed that those in favour of a heliocentric vision of the world demolished the core of Revelation.


A similar affirmation must be made with regard to history. At first it seemed indispensable for the authenticity of Scripture, and therefore for the faith founded upon it, that the Pentateuch be indisputably attributed to Moses


Meanwhile, not only those decisions of the Biblical Commission which had entered too much into the sphere of merely historical questions were corrected; we have also learned something new about the methods and limits of historical knowledge.

[end of quote]

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

I tell you the sad news that the entirety of PBC's answers is on a no longer extant page.